by Rosemary Claire Smith
We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier . . . the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. . . . Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice. . . .
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy
July 15, 1960
Illustrated by Eldar Zakirov
On this fine November day in 1967, Natalya Orlova took the oath to become a citizen of the United States, thereby clearing her last hurdle for acceptance into the astronaut training program. After nearly three years of giving her all to NASA, today should have been one of the happiest days of her life. If only Tomas, and their little Pasha, could have celebrated with her. Instead, Natalya returned to Merritt Island alone.
Striding toward her hard-earned place atop the roof of the Launch Operations Center, she caught sight of the sorrow and yearning on Pete Conrad, Wally Schirra, and Alan Bean’s faces. She’d begun working with these three aviators soon after her own desperate race down dark cobblestoned streets of Paris. Today, their eyes, like hers, were fixed upon Launch Complex 39 where the mighty Saturn V perched, with Apollo 4’s command module sitting empty.
Only once had Wally Schirra spoken to Natalya about the launchpad fire. As backup for Apollo 1, Schirra had trained with Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Schirra had been at the Cape that January day watching what should have been routine preflight tests, before catching a T-38 flight back to Houston with his buddies. Instead, he’d witnessed seventeen seconds of tragedy. Then came fifteen minutes of ghastly silence before the confirmation of what everyone already knew. Schirra’s words echoed in Natalya’s mind today: “We always expected to lose at least one mission before we reached the Moon. But we never expected it to be on the ground.”
Now, Schirra shifted to make room for Natalya, and Bean followed his example. Conrad, the chief mischief-maker among the rocket-boys, narrowed his startlingly blue eyes a fraction when he glanced at her and grudgingly made space. No doubt catching her momentary dismay, Schirra murmured to her, “Don’t let him get to ya, kid.” He’d taken to calling her “kid,” as though she were his younger sister, which Natalya found reassuring.
Bean nodded toward the Saturn V. “Isn’t she something?”
Schirra’s voice caught. “I bet she’d take you on one heckuva ride.” He was the only one of them who spoke from experience atop a Titan II.
Here she was today, almost halfway around the world from her homeland, thirsting for a launch as stirring as Vostok 5 and Vostok 6. How she’d cheered when those rockets fought their way upward from the sweeping Kazakh Steppe, upward into orbit. Back in 1963, she’d bought into Comrade Korolev’s assertion that American capitalists had nothing but “weak, puny rockets.” That had been her fellow Ukrainian’s first lie, although it hadn’t hurt her like his empty promise to see her orbit Earth.
At noon on the dot, Mission Control completed countdown. A gold-orange-brilliantly-white pillow of fire ballooned out, blasting Apollo 4 upward. Shouts of joy burst from all their throats as they collectively willed the majestic rocket to rage against gravity and pierce the sky. “Go, go!” Natalya bellowed, hardly caring when the building beneath her feet began shaking. A split second later, sound waves from the launch swept over the ops center, pummeling her. She stood gaping at the fast-diminishing rocket before turning to the screen to celebrate the first-stage separation and presently the second.
Bean switched on his thousand-watt grin. “We’re back on track, baby!”
“What a doozie!” a jubilant Conrad replied as the men slapped each other’s backs.
Natalya smiled to think how Pasha would have giggled in delight at that Americanism, “doozie.” Her smile faltered.
Moments later, Apollo 4 pierced the upper cloud layer, and there was nothing more to see. Yes, the United States was undeniably back on track. After nine trying months—a seeming eternity in the Moon Race—during which the Kremlin boasted of docking two remote-controlled spacecraft, the Americans had rethought, reconfigured, and retested. Today’s uncrewed flight featured the type of launch vehicle NASA expected to use for its Moon shot. Natalya permitted herself a measure of optimism about her own prospects, albeit as carefully rationed as Soviet medicine.
“Orlova, c’mon,” Wally Schirra held his cupped hand to his mouth and tipped his head back in the universal gesture for drinking. “Going to tip a few. For Gus and Ed and Roger.” Conrad and Bean had each lost a friend from their astronaut class. She caught the fleeting surprise on Conrad’s face at the invitation into their tight circle. Bean stood poker-faced, his gaze flickering between Conrad and her.
Natalya wanted to draw back, having endured Conrad’s pressed lips and stubborn silences, which went beyond his “concerns” she wasn’t “a team player.” He doubted her renunciation of Communism and Socialism, maybe even suspected her of being a foreign agent. Naturally, she couldn’t divulge to him the information she’d brought along regarding Star City’s capabilities and timetables.
And then there was the indisputable fact that she was female.
I could tolerate him better, she thought, if Chief Designer Korolev hadn’t lied by promising me the Soyuz circumnavigation of the Moon. What did it matter that I scored at the top in the physical, mental, and psychological tests? Or that I completed the most parachute jumps? Or that I was the best woman pilot in the cosmonaut training program? After Valentina Tereshkova’s remarkable solo orbit of Earth, Korolev had no further use for female cosmonauts.
Now, as Schirra held the door open for Natalya, Conrad motioned impatiently to her and said, “Unless you’re ready to concede!” Bean guffawed. Was this a crack in the ice sheet of Conrad’s attitude toward her or merely another test?
I’ll “tip a few,” Natalya thought, in Pasha’s name. She matched Pete Conrad’s confident grin with one of her own. She wasn’t about to let this U.S. Navy aviator, who stood two inches shorter than her, think he could out-drink her. Not when it came to American “booze” as they called it, and especially not when it came to vodka. Stashed downstairs were two bottles of Ukraine’s finest, which she’d taken when she escaped.
“Challenge accepted.” She strode through the doorway.
* * *
For the first six months of 1968, rumors about prospective crews for upcoming Apollo missions zoomed between NASA installations faster than naval aviators could fly. The “smart money” wasn’t on Natalya. She kept her focus on training, testing, and improving her fluency in English. Then in August, two months after Bobby Kennedy dodged an assassin’s bullet and barely a week after he claimed his party’s nomination for president, Natalya’s fortunes shifted.
The discontent in the NASA Co-Administrator’s office felt more palpable than anything Natalya ever experienced in Star City.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s commanding brown eyes held the gaze of the entire room. Nobody could mistake NASA’s codirector for a figurehead. Having ably served as ambassador to France following her husband’s death, she’d received widespread acclaim for her years running the Peace Corps. Next, she’d maneuvered LBJ into naming her codirector of NASA together with Deke Slayton. “Gentlemen,” she said, “six years ago, my late husband told everyone that it won’t be a single person going to the Moon, but rather our entire nation. He knew that to succeed in sending a rocket 240,000 miles to the Moon, and bringing our brave astronauts home safely, we must be bold. He meant more than new technologies and extraordinary precision. President Johnson and my brother-in-law Bobby are 100 percent on board.”
A couple of division heads, the P.R. man, and Pete Conrad shot one another covert glances, but mostly the posse looked to Deke Slayton to assert his heretofore inviolable prerogative of assigning astronauts to upcoming missions. If they’d had their way, he’d be NASA’s sole director.
Slayton ran a hand over his buzz cut. “Damned Russkies got Valentina Tereshkova into space five years ago. They won that round fair and square. What’s the point of us putting Orlova or any of the ladies through their paces? NASA doesn’t need the distraction. I don’t see us sending any of ’em up. Physiological factors make it inadvisable.”
Natalya gripped the arms of her chair as this powerful American man echoed the Chief Designer’s “truth” about women’s hormones or chromosomes making them unsuited for space. Korolev had faulted Valentina Tereshkova for her physical exhaustion, constant nausea, and insomnia aboard Vostok 6, which prevented her from conducting several scientific tests. As if any male cosmonaut performed flawlessly! While being paraded around the globe, lauded for heroism, and showered with awards, she was privately demeaned, thereby sinking the prospects for all female cosmonauts. That’s when Natalya secretly began learning English and looking for opportunities to escape. She said not a word to Tomas, who would never have agreed to it. And now, after losing her son, after giving up her husband, after leaving behind her whole life, here she sat at the Cape listening to the same “truth.”
Then the debate veered from the way it had played out in Star City.
Jacqueline Kennedy tapped her Cross pencil against a thick binder filled with test results and psych evaluations. Heads swiveled toward her. “Not according to our in-house assessments, Deke. Besides, the Soviets disposed of that tired argument with Tereshkova’s mission.”
Natalya scrutinized the earnest faces around the room, knowing something they didn’t: The Kremlin’s publication Pravda would have proclaimed Tereshkova’s flight a wild success no matter what. “Pravda” was Russian for “truth.”
Jacqueline Kennedy pressed on. “Our support-ops engineering teams are enthusiastic. Women consume less air, less water, less food.”
Slayton grumbled, “Less consumables mean less fuel. I get it.”
“Might be pickier about the taste,” Pete Conrad put in. This was met with smirks and chuckles.
Natalya spoke up. “I never enjoyed that luxury in Ukraine or Star City.” One of her earliest childhood memories was being very hungry and keeping silent while hiding beneath a mattress. Not that the U.S.S.R’s victory in the Great Patriotic War ended drought or famine in Ukraine.
Slayton was undeterred. “I’m concerned about the physical challenges and protecting the ladies.”
Protecting the ladies, Natalya thought. Where were chivalrous protectors when Jacqueline Kennedy and her husband sorely needed protecting in Dallas? Or when my son needed a competent doctor? She said, “During eighteen hours of labor when I had my son, I was given nothing for pain except aspirin and vodka.”
The men shuffled, uttered a nervous cough or two.
Kennedy seized on Natalya’s point. “Our premier medical team already determined that women are better equipped than men to handle the physical stresses of weightlessness.”
Slayton switched tactics. “We’d have to fabricate a special spacesuit to fit a woman’s body.” His hand rose to sketch a curve. At Kennedy’s raised eyebrows, he abandoned the gesture. “Frankly that’s another complexity our design team doesn’t need. Not at this late date in the Moon Race.”
The Moon Race—it always came back to that. The fear of losing terrified these Americans. The Kremlin continued to pile up victories, not only pulling off a historic soft landing of the uncrewed Luna 9 on the Moon, but also sending Luna 10 into orbit around the Moon.
Then something happened, something that had never—could never—take place in Star City, or anywhere inside the U.S.S.R. Mouth set in a grim line and eyes flashing, Jacqueline Kennedy rose to command everyone’s undivided attention. “Which company has the contract to design and fabricate spacesuits? Hmm? Who is gluing layer upon layer of silica cloth, heat resistant fibers, woven stainless steel, and the like? Any guesses?”
“Playtex,” Deke Slayton muttered. His cohorts winced, but he didn’t give up. Arms akimbo, he said, “How will they relieve themselves in zero gee?”
Natalya kept her voice neutral. “Valentina Tereshkova managed it.” You don’t care, she thought, that NASA’s training facilities lack a convenient ladies room. Wally Schirra stands guard for me outside the men’s room.
“What will it say about Yankee ingenuity,” Kennedy asked, “if we let something this pedestrian defeat us?”
Pete Conrad lodged the next objection. “What about those Mercury 13 female pilots? Doesn’t one of them deserve a fair shot, if any of the ladies do?”
Natalya worked to mask her double aggravation at the notion that there could be only one slot for “the ladies” and getting undercut by her “drinking buddy.”
“Fair question,” Jacqueline Kennedy replied. “Orlova’s test scores eclipse theirs. For that matter, she’s got every man in our astronaut corps beat, with one exception. Neil Armstrong. I say we go with the best we’ve got.”
A thrill sprang up inside Natalya. She knew she’d done well, but not how well. Even so, her heart went out to the Mercury 13 women whose hopes were to be put on hold yet again.
Now the men in the room—those competitive souls—began scrutinizing her as if they might divine how she had pulled this off.
“I grant you she’s a rock-steady aviator with top scores,” Slayton said. “So why did the Soviets pass her over in favor of Tereshkova?”
“I grew up in Ukraine, and she’s Russian.”
“Korolev’s Ukrainian,” said Slayton.
“He wasn’t willing to take the unnecessary risk,” Natalya replied. Her devotion to Tomas and four-year-old Pasha could have easily been twisted into an insufficient dedication to Socialism and her working-class comrades. “If I was ever accused of bourgeois nationalism—”
Slayton cut her off. “Reportedly, you drank too much in Star City, where you were hardly a team player.”
“Schirra, Conrad, and Bean can tell you I know how to hold my liquor.” She stole a glance at Conrad’s poker face. He hadn’t demanded a rematch.
“Is it possible, even likely,” said Kennedy, “that Korolev disliked an educated, self-assured woman? One who racked up more accomplishments than many men vying for cosmonaut duty? And if drinking were a disqualification, neither the U.S.S.R. nor the U.S. could muster half a squadron.”
That produced knowing chuckles all round.
Kennedy pressed on. “The Soviets sent the first woman into orbit. Deke’s right. We can’t erase that. Now let’s top them with the first woman to perform an EVA.”
The first to walk in space! Natalya hardly dared believe it, especially when Conrad’s blue eyes narrowed and Slayton sputtered in disbelief. Thankfully, the public relations fellow nodded, scribbling something on a clipboard. “I can work with this,” he proclaimed.
Kennedy closed the discussion with a firm, “This isn’t a debating society. I suggest all of you worry about your own jobs and let me worry about mine.”
Several men—thankfully not every man—glanced at Deke Slayton, silently beseeching him to overrule her. He said nothing. The decision, made above his pay grade, would stand.
As the meeting broke up, Jacqueline motioned for Natalya to stay behind. After everyone else filed out, she said, “Your selection might be the single most significant decision I’ve made since embarking on this co-directorship with Deke.”
“I’ll do my best, Ma’am.”
Jacqueline Kennedy fixed her intense gaze upon Natalya. “I need you to understand exactly what you represent and why it’s critical. Bobby has to win big with women voters. Do you realize what a disaster Richard Nixon would be? He’s out to destroy the domestic programs my husband worked so hard to launch.” Scowling, she crossed her arms. “And here I was furious with Johnson for taking credit for Jack’s ‘New Frontier,’ even renaming it ‘the Great Society.’ Well now I don’t know which would be worse: watching Nixon cut off our hopes of reaching the Moon, or claiming credit for my husband’s greatest accomplishment!” She gestured in frustration. “Worse yet, Nixon’s a small-minded war monger who terrifies me.”
Natalya nodded cautiously, having learned long ago not to voice a political opinion.
Jacqueline Kennedy closed the distance between them. “Why did you push to become a cosmonaut?”
Here it is, Natalya thought, recalling Comrade Korolev’s expression as he’d almost stumped her with the question, “Why do you like flying?” She opened her mouth, then paused, conscious of the seconds passing and nevertheless fearing her hesitation would be mistaken for caginess.
“To be in the air,” she replied, the same direct answer she’d given the Chief Designer. He had smiled then, for he was an engineer and said, “Right, it’s as simple as that.” Now, all she could do was hope that Jacqueline Kennedy, with her political instincts and zeal to see her husband’s lofty goal fulfilled, would recognize and value truthfulness. “Becoming a cosmonaut was not what anyone expected of me.” This drew a knowing grin from the woman who’d headed up both the Peace Corps and NASA. “I knew it would be challenging. I hoped it wouldn’t be too hard on Tomas and Pasha because it was something I had to do.” She’d heard nothing from or about her husband after getting away. U.S. intelligence agencies refused to disclose whatever they knew, leaving Natalya to wake at night guilt-ridden.
“Ah, your family. Was it difficult for your son to cope with your long absences and the risk?”
This American leader, Natalya recalled, had a girl and a boy of her own, both deprived of their father at a tender age. Did her children come to her sobbing the way Pasha had when he grew barely old enough to fear that one day Mama wasn’t ever coming home? “Like any Ukrainian child, he knew bad things can happen with little warning.”
Jacqueline’s mouth quirked. “It’s no different here. My children learned that lesson much too early.” Bitterness crept into her voice. “My husband’s political enemies held my own flying lessons against me.”
“You fly?” At first, the idea startled Natalya, but then it made sense for this daring woman with her penchant for the unconventional.
Jacqueline crossed to the window and looked skyward. “I piloted a Cessna when we were first married. How Jack loved my ‘sense of adventure’ . . . until he didn’t.” She clutched her arms. “How he worried every time I climbed into my plane—a capable two-seater, utterly reliable. How he hugged me and buried his face in my hair when I landed.” The widow’s bitter laughter reminded Natalya of Tomas’ round face filled with worry. Jacqueline went on, “The life of a newly-minted senator’s wife must be governed by decorum. Jack’s advisers insisted I stop flying. When I was expecting Caroline, I gave up my own sky. Instead, I took Jack’s dream of space and made it my own.”
A sensible strategy, Natalya thought, but one that had failed miserably at insulating Jacqueline’s children from loss. “That must have been hard. You have my thanks and gratitude for everything you’ve done on my behalf . . . for believing in me when others do not.”
“Don’t concern yourself about the rocket-boys, with their focus on responsibility, equipment, aeronautics, and liquor. What I told them goes for you too, Natalya. You worry about your job and let me worry about mine.”
* * *
After weeks of navigating journalists, pundits, and politicians bent on attacking her inclusion in the first crewed mission since the Apollo 1 fire twenty months ago, Natalya stood suited up in the White Room at Launch Complex 34. She had the satisfaction of knowing her place aboard Apollo 7 was anything but a cheap political stunt to boost Robert Kennedy’s chances of victory. Beside her, Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele began their farewell phone calls to their families waiting over at the launch ops center. Very soon the three of them would don helmets and clamber through the hatch.
Schirra clutched the handset to his ear. “You mind your mother. . . . I love you, too. . . . You better believe it. . . . Soon as I get back.” The moment was simultaneously intimate and necessarily public, even if it admitted of no chance to straighten a shirt collar or tuck an errant lock of hair, much less collect a last kiss or whisper in his wife’s ear.
What would it have been like if Natalya hadn’t lost most of her family to both sides during the Great Patriotic War, or if she could enjoy much the same conversation with her Pasha? Four years ago, she had set her irrevocable plan into motion—her one chance, a trip of a few kilometers to the U.S. embassy in Paris, a trip subject to as many vagaries and hazards as today’s impending rocket launch. Would she have chanced it if her son hadn’t already succumbed to a chest infection? The cavalier attitude of the Star City doctors toward little Pasha’s choking, gasping end firmed Natalya’s resolve. Her frayed marriage to Tomas had broken the day she blinked freezing tears in the bitter wind as the small, sad coffin was lowered into the ground with nary a priest or prayer to accompany her no-longer high-spirited boy. Never again could he beg her to fly him to the Moon.
Precisely on schedule, Schirra’s and Eisle’s families were herded upstairs to a prime viewing spot atop the Launch Operations Building. A month ago, Jacqueline Kennedy had asked Natalya, “Do you understand why we give our astronauts’ wives and children this?”
“A gesture of respect?” she ventured. “In recognition of their sacrifices, large and small.” Respect had been as closely rationed in Star City as medical care. Thank goodness NASA, unlike the Politburo, wouldn’t hesitate to call a halt barely three weeks before the November election, which pollsters pronounced a nail-biter, rather than risk their astronauts’ lives for the sake of political expediency. Nonetheless, there could be no guarantees.
The director’s lips twisted. “Call it compassion mixed with pragmatism, not in equal parts. If the worst happens, the families are out of the clutches of the press. The public will never witness their grief. Not on my watch.”
Natalya bit her lip. These wives would never find themselves immortalized on dreadful, grainy film like Jacqueline Kennedy scrambling over the back of that convertible in Dallas, trying to retrieve her husband’s brain matter. This was a gift of mercy, a gift from a widow.
* * *
The first stage practically rattled Natalya’s teeth out of her gums. But it ended too abruptly when the second stage gave them an unexpected early kick like the honey-pepper vodka from her homeland. She kept her eyes on her instrumentation. Nothing appeared amiss.
MISSION CONTROL: Apollo 7 you’re looking good.
SCHIRRA: We copy, Houston.
Natalya let out a breath. Von Braun, that hateful Nazi, certainly knew his rocketry. Soon, the ride smoothed out like Ukraine’s best vodka combining pure well water with soft winter wheat. Then they floated weightless. She joined Schirra and Eisle in laughing while soaking up the dream of a lifetime.
“Just wait, kid,” Schirra said. “It gets better.”
Mercifully free from nausea, she discovered he was right. Several days into the mission, just before her EVA, Natalya paused to gaze out the open hatch and marvel at the landscape passing silently below without the least rush of wind or other physical sensation of speed. Eastern Europe stretched out, gleaming in brilliant sunshine. A streak of white clouds, like droplets of spilled milk, spread across Ukraine. Natalya’s breath caught at the first sight of her homeland in four years. The countryside looked placid from orbit. Invisible scars ran deep three decades after her village suffered through Stalin’s Holodomor followed by war, then drought and more famine.
She kept her reactions to herself. Thanks to advances in communications, people around the globe were watching this mission more closely in real time than previous ones. Neither Natalya nor NASA needed added attention placed on her foreign birth or her life in a Soviet Socialist Republic for twenty-nine of her thirty-two years.
MISSION CONTROL: You’re clear to go through the hatch.
ORLOVA: First step looks like a doozie!
No, this wasn’t what she’d practiced saying when making history as the first woman to walk in space. She had no time for regrets. While her words were replayed around the world, Natalya focused on performing the tasks she’d drilled and drilled. With her umbilical tethering her to the spacecraft, muscle memory kicked in. She moved as deliberately and smoothly as she had during underwater training, thankful for technological improvements in mobility since the first EVAs. It was so quiet out here without the capsule’s whirs and hums that she could hear her heartbeat.
The trickiest of her tasks proved to be seemingly the simplest—retrieving the micrometeorite collector. The problem wasn’t her spacesuit, which fit well despite Deke Slayton’s purported concerns. But Natalya’s small hands struggled inside the custom-designed bulky, clumsy gloves. When her first two efforts came to naught, her memory served up Korolev’s scornful face as he denigrated Valentina Tereshkova for failing to complete a basic scientific task.
SCHIRRA: Let it go, Natalya. Time to get inside.
ORLOVA: I almost had it. One more try.
She steadied herself and began again. Finally, she managed to detach the device. The slow, deliberate motions of her return to the command module came naturally, for she had little desire to get back inside before she absolutely must. With a smooth motion, she handed the micrometeorite collector to Schirra, who waited suited up with his arms stretching out from the hatchway. As Natalya floated in headfirst, a pang of sadness mingled with relief and pride.
Evidently reading her expression, Schirra said, “If you could see the look on your face, kid. Reminds me of Ed White when he told me about pulling himself back into the capsule. ‘Saddest moment of my life.’ Those were his words.” This was Schirra’s third time in orbit.
She sighed. “One of the saddest, certainly.” Especially if my adopted country loses interest in sending women into space.
Copyright © 2021. Next Frontier by Rosemary Claire Smith